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Leading Difficult Change: It’s Not What You Think

A leader I’m working with—I’ll call him Dave—is struggling with leading a big change in his organization. In the wake of increasing financial pressures, Dave is implementing elements of high-performance EMS: measuring response and utilization, deploying ambulances more dynamically, allowing demand to dictate crew shift schedules.

Dave had thought the leadership challenge would center around implementing the technical and operational aspects of the change, such as identifying and measuring key indicators, evaluating data and making regular adjustments to ratchet up efficiency. But he’s quickly finding that the real challenge lies in inspiring his field staff to accept the change and stay engaged. For the field staff, the change means less overtime, less scheduling flexibility, busier shifts, fewer static stations, and more truck time and moving around. “I’ve become the bastard spoiler who just wants to make people’s lives miserable,” Dave told me.

Leading big change takes us into the realm of human feelings and behavior. We are change-averse creatures; change disrupts the familiar and we resist. Resistance takes a variety of forms, from simple foot dragging to protest, sabotage and outright mutiny. Fueling the resistance are powerful feelings of loss, betrayal, anger, confusion, fear, disappointment, marginalization and sadness.

Change is like grief and involves a thorny journey toward accepting a new reality. Dave’s challenge is in finding a way to lead his people through this journey and coming out the other end with enthused, excited, dedicated and loyal employees.

Below are a few suggestions for leading difficult change.

Don’t underestimate the people dimension of change 

Too often, leaders get caught up in leading the technical and operational aspects of change and don’t budget time and energy for leading the people. When messing with a medic’s work setting and schedule, you are playing with fire. So expect a firestorm.

Budget time and emotional energy for listening, supporting, telling stories, explaining details and accommodating people’s perception that you no longer care about them. Pay attention to your listening/talking ratio. Listen at least twice as much as you talk. Remember, listening is a valued gift in the aftermath of loss.

Provide a clear and compelling why 

In working with Dave, I’ve pushed him hard to get clear about why he is making this change. Our tendency is to focus the bulk of our explaining on the how and what. We explain what we will do and how we will do it. But the how and what don’t engage. People are engaged by a powerful why.

In Dave’s case, there is both a little why and a big why. The little why is about more efficiency and strengthening service responsiveness. The big why may be more difficult to explain because it is about the big picture and why field staff should care. Because the change is forcing staff to sacrifice comfort and familiarity, Dave needs to relate the change to something big, compelling and worthwhile that the field staff can identify with. This may be about long-term company survival. It may be about becoming a premier or best practice organization. It may be about better rewards for all staff in the future. It may be about customer and community service. Whatever it is, the big why needs to be clear, bright, compelling, completely absent of bullshit and directly related to what the staff values. Lots of listening will reveal those values.

Let people do their change work 

Accepting change is a personal journey. This journey is like being thrown into a confusing wilderness and having to find your way out. This takes time—perhaps a year or more. The leader will want to rush the journey and quickly get people on board with the change. Don’t. Instead, faithfully stand on the edge of the wilderness and provide the companionship and vision of hope the people need.